The List: America’s 10 Best Adventure Cities

We read the same magazines you do — the ones that pick out all the rad places to live every year: Asheville, Bozeman, New Paltz, Carbondale, Victor. And we fantasize about living in those places, and then we go back to work in our cities. Hey, we may not have the mountains at our back door, but we do have good Thai food around the corner, right?

Odds are, you live and work in a city, or an “urban area,” as the U.S. census puts it. If you have to live in a city to do whatever it is you do for a living, you might as well live somewhere with decent access to the outdoors. Here’s our list of the 10 best adventure cities in the United States (in alphabetical order).

Anchorage, Alaska
Alaska is home to the biggest mountain terrain in the 50 states, and Anchorage is the most cosmopolitan place you can live to be near it. The 250-mile long Chugach Range is right out the back door and receives more than 600 inches of snow every year. Talkeetna, the launchpad for Alaska Range mountaineering (you might have heard of 20,320-foot Denali), is 2.5 hours to the north. Anchorage was birthplace of the fatbike, a snowbike with two rims welded together, long before you ever heard of a Surly Pugsley. Valdez ice climbing, salmon fishing on the Kenai Peninsula, Alaskan brown bears, bush pilots, Into The Wild — you know, Alaska.

Austin, Texas
Austin boasts great terrain for triathlon training — Texas’ famous Hill Country begins just north of town for cyclists, temps are warm during the winter, and the warm waters of Barton Springs Pool are good for open-water swimming year round. Town Lake is great for paddling and SUP year round. The Barton Creek Greenbelt holds dozens of legit sport climbing routes on real rock, outside, and climbers who live in Austin are a half-day’s drive from the legendary multi-pitch sport routes at El Potrero Chico in Mexico. One of the guys who won that bike race over in France a bunch of times used to live and train here.

Charlotte, North Carolina
The U.S. National Whitewater Center, with its artificial ¾-mile Class II-IV course for kayakers and rafters, and its 14 miles of trails, and its 46-foot outdoor climbing wall, is a big reason to call Charlotte the best adventure city in the south. But its proximity to other rad stuff helps too: It’s two hours from the 100-plus miles of mountain bike trails in not-so-secret-anymore Brevard, three hours from Great Smoky Mountains National Park, as well as two hours from almost every great rock climbing venue in North Carolina: Linville Gorge, Looking Glass, Rumbling Bald, and Stone Mountain. If real whitewater is your think, Charlotte is two hours’ drive from the Nantahala River and a four-hour drive from the legendary Ocoee.

Denver, Colorado
Denver is a day-tripping dirt-lover’s dream: Within a two-hour drive of downtown Denver, climbers can count on almost 10,000 routes — sport, trad, alpine, bouldering, single-pitch, multi-pitch. Plus hundreds of miles of trails within that same radius for hiking, trail running and mountain biking. Plus 850 miles of bike trails in the city. If high altitude is your thing, Colorado has it: of the state’s 54 14ers , a dozen are within two hours’ drive of Denver. Weekend skiing at nearby ski resorts can such with the traffic on I-70, but if you can score weekdays (or sick days) off work, there’s a huge amount of mountain terrain to be explored, on- and off-piste.

Las Vegas, Nevada
Vegas isn’t all strippers, gambling, excessive drinking and eating, and flashing lights. Well, okay, the Strip kind of is. But just outside America’s den of sin is incredible desert terrain: Red Rock National Conservation Area is one of the best all-around rock climbing areas in the United States, with thousands of routes from boulder problems to 20-plus pitches on technicolor sandstone and patina. Vegas is the launching point for many a desert road trip loop, including the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon National Park, and the sheer thousand-foot walls of Zion National Park. But wait, there’s more: Kayaking in the coves on Lake Mead and summer hiking on 11,900-foot Mount Charleston are both within an hour of town.

Los Angeles, California
OK, L.A. is not the most livable city in America. But the terrain outside the city is better than most. Canyoneers have the technical San Gabriel Mountains. Climbers have the legendary Taqhuitz and Suicide Rocks (birthplace of the Yosemite Decimal System for climbing grading, and some of Yosemite’s legendary climbers). Joshua Tree is a couple hours’ drive to the east. Big Bear, two hours away, was one of the centers of development for downhill and cross-country mountain bike racing — and the site of the first winter X Games back in 1997. Whale watching, snorkeling, kayaking and hiking at Channel Islands National Park are a weekend trip from the city. Midnight Ridazz is one of the biggest, baddest regular grassroots bike rides in America, growing from six cyclists to thousands, and spawning chapters in other American cities. And, if you plan and manage the L.A. traffic right, and you can ski at a resort and surf in the same day.

Portland, Oregon
Like bikes? Portland is one of the League of American Bicyclists’ only “platinum-level” bicycle-friendly communities and the beacon of bike infrastructure in the U.S. There are 2,100 rides, races, and other bicycle events held annually in Portland, which is more than six per day. If you’re a rock climber, yeah, it rains a lot in Portland, but it doesn’t much at the legendary Smith Rock, where 1,500 routes climb the welded volcanic tuff and basalt cliffs three hours from Portland. The surf scene on the Oregon coast is low-key, but legit, and doable year-round with some fortuitous weather and a thick wetsuit. Mount Hood offers year-round skiing and snowboarding 90 minutes from downtown, and one of the most accessible entry-level Cascade Volcano climbs — a single-day crampon-and-ice-axe slog up the south side from the Timberline Lodge.

Salt Lake City, Utah
Know who’s getting more done before 9 a.m. than you are all day, some days? Black Diamond Equipment employees on their weekday dawn patrols starting at 5 a.m. or earlier all year, rock climbing and ski mountaineering for a few hours before they hit the office in southeast Salt Lake City. When you can look down the street and see 11,000-foot peaks at the end, it’s hard to forget how much you want to be in the mountains, biking, hiking, climbing and skiing. Thousands of rock and ice climbing routes, as well as seven ski resorts, sit less than an hour away from downtown SLC in the Wasatch Range.

San Francisco, California
San Francisco is an hour and a half from surfing epicenter of Santa Cruz, and just across the Golden Gate Bridge from Marin County, the birthplace of mountain biking. And even though it’s still 3.5 hours away, San Francisco is the closest (rad) city to Yosemite National Park. Cyclists and runners can hammer their legs and lungs on the city’s steep hills, without sweating or freezing to death in the mild temps, which steadily hover between 45 and 70 year-round. Point Reyes National Seashore, 35 miles away, holds 70,000 acres of wild forests, beaches, and coastal strand.

Seattle, Washington
Surprisingly, Seattle actually gets less annual precipitation than New York (or Boston, or Washington D.C., while we’re at it), and it’s not rainy all year here. If you’re a skier who needs to live in a city, you’re stoked on Seattle: Crystal Mountain, Stevens Pass, and Snoqualmie Pass are all within 2 hours of the city, and Mount Baker Ski Area, record holder for the highest seasonal snowfall of any U.S. resort, is 2.5 hours from downtown. Washington ranks #1 in the League of American Bicyclists list of bicycle friendly states. The city is a 3.5-hour drive from the climbing and mountain biking mecca of Squamish and two hours from some of the most inspiring mountaineering terrain in the continental U.S., the Cascades. Also, if you want to school yourself for climbing the world’s big mountains, there’s this peak called Mount Rainier, which you can see from Seattle on a clear day.

Seattle photo by Shutterstock

{ 21 comments…read them below or write one }

  • jim cowan

    I don’t know that there’s a more beautiful skyline in the world than Seattle’s. Actually, that is a lie- I do know; there isn’t one. I did not know the rain facts, however!

  • Craig Rowe

    While I’m not sure how long I’ll be here, it’s great to see Vegas on the list. I look at Red Rock every morning from my bedroom and can’t believe that damnit, I need to work instead.

  • Guest

    Too bad Portland’s bike friendliness only applies to pavement or cyclocross courses. I don’t know how they maintain that platinum status with their completely anti-mountain bike stance.

  • Don Feltham

    Regarding Portland, you did not even mention the Paddling possibilities – over 100 rivers within a 3 hr drive, it has to have the best collection of whitewater of any American city. I can be on Class 3 rapids in under an hour and I am only 10 mikes from downtown, and I rarely even see others there is so much to choose from Not to mention the flatwater possibilities.
    Don’t forget World Class Mountain Biking, and the Skiing is to die for…never learned to ski the deep powder til I moved here!

  • jake

    Surprised to see a complete lack of New England cities on the list. Burlington, Portland, and Boston all offer incredible amounts of outdoor fun well within an hour or so drive.

  • Leigh

    I lived in Boulder for 10 years and would take it over Denver because of its proximity to the Flatirons and mountains and the bike riding in and around Boulder is superlative.

  • Andrew

    Nice to see Las Vegas on your list! As a climber, who has climbed a lot of places, and likes to climb big routes all year round, I have to say that Las Vegas is the best place to live in America if you like to climb year round!

  • rtj9179

    Boston doesn’t make the list!!

    Pristine beaches, Acadia National Park, The White Mountains, Berkshires, and Green Mountains all within a 2 hours drive, dense forests and pristine streams….

  • tyrone.sweetlick

    Oh good, you didn’t name mine. Tons of backcountry (desert, canyons and mountains) within 2 hours, hundreds of miles of whitewater, dozens of miles of mountain biking right from downtown, plenty of climbing, and lots of skiing.

    The beer scene here is good, too, and getting better! No, it’s not Bend, and doesn’t cost like it either

  • Eric

    I know it’s right up there with Las Vegas and LA in terms of [lack of] urban planning, but Phoenix is a climber’s dream – within a couple hours you can climb year-round on just about any type of rock or style of climbing. Couple that with the mountain biking options, even within the City’s desert preserves, and as long as you don’t mind missing the ski season, it’s a hard place to beat.

  • Nathan

    Whatever you do, do not put Albuquerque NM on the list. Hundreds of miles of some of the finest mountain biking in the US within 2.5 hrs in any direction, much of it only 30 min away. Probably 60 mi of quality mountain biking in the city open space. Rio Grande gorge for paddling and rafting, rock climbing in the Sandia Mountains, skiing in just about any direction you look. Accommodating year round climate, and low cost of living. Stay away. This place is a hole.

  • AARON

    Denver is rubbish grew up in the foothills all on the front-range. Denver is no Boulder. Make it Boulder, Denver is for people who have lived in CO their whole lives and never skied or been up a 14er.

    Plus ya Burlington and maybe Jackson or Park City(unless there is city numbers required)

    oh and FLAGSTAFF

  • Nathan

    Charlotte NC? You do realize all the adventure stuff had to be manmade? What’s the environmental cost of powering all that water back up the hill? Driving for hours to ride a bike in Pisgah is just not worth it, plenty of mileage but the riding is all pretty generic. Charlotte is actually at the top of my list of the most miserable places on earth to be interested in outdoor sports.

  • Clay

    Truthfully, outside of Red Rock, there isn’t much to offer in Vegas. Mt. Charleston is there, but if you are used to other alpine areas, it’s pretty pathetic in comparison. Lake Mead is again, also there, but it’s unpleasant and largely unappealing to look at. Red Rock is fantastic, I absolutely love it and it is the biggest (and only) thing I miss about living in Vegas, but Vegas as a whole falls very short of the Reno/Tahoe area’s alpine and water aspects. If only Red Rock could get up north…

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>